Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What to do after an MBA? Job or another degree? Like an MA or MSc and PhD? Or direct PhD or MPhil?

From the link:

Many see the MBA as a bridge to a promotion, the start of a career in investment banking, or the skillset needed to start a business. It can be one or all of these things.  The writer of this article (from the link above) applied, and was accepted, to the Ph.D. program at the London School of Economics. He began the Ph.D. immediately after the MBA.

So, should you consider getting another degree after (or in addition to) the MBA?

1) The MBA is a professional degree designed to train managers. It is not a research degree. If you want to do Ph.D.-level work in a discipline, consider using your MBA electives elsewhere in the university – MBA-level courses in economics and econometrics will generally not provide the strong applied economics and statistics background needed for a Ph.D.-level program. At Chicago, it is generally not difficult for MBA students to take masters-level courses in the Economics Department (from what I understand, this is true of most schools). While only a few American MBA programs reside in schools with top economics departments, it does not take Nobel Laureates to vastly improve the average MBA student’s understanding of economics and econometrics – take these courses if they are available to you, whether or not they have business school course numbers. They will help you in understanding problems in business and in life, even if you do not continue your studies.

2) The Ph.D. is not the only option. Many earn other masters-level or professional degrees in tandem with (or sequentially with) the MBA. Common choices are the JD/MBA and MBA/MPP combinations, but MBA/LLM and MBA/MD combinations are not unheard-of. The key factors to consider here are: financial commitment, time commitment, and interdisciplinary strength of the university in question. If you are at Harvard, there is clearly departmental support for adding a law or policy degree to your studies that matches (many would say surpasses, in the case of HLS) the quality of the HBS MBA. If you are at a program with a top-30 business program but law program that scarcely grazes the top 100 in any law school rankings, that JD/MBA might be a more questionable investment.

3) The cost structure of the Ph.D., from the student’s perspective, is wildly different from that of the MBA. While nearly all MBA students pay at least some tuition, most Ph.D. students in top programs are generally associated with research fellowships and paid to do research. At minimum, students at top Ph.D. programs usually pay no tuition, and they generally make enough money teaching and doing research to cover their living and travel expenses. In other words, while many students take on more debt to earn a top MBA, there is generally an inverse correlation between the quality of a Ph.D. and the amount of debt incurred.

4) An MBA is arguably the most versatile graduate degree, which is both a strength and a weakness in this context. Most MBA programs are meant to produce general competence, while most Ph.D. programs force the student to develop narrow expertise. The student who excels in one environment may not do well in the other. Degrees that require good writing and communication skills (such as the LL.B. or American J.D.) tend to produce people more able to write a compelling research proposal or dissertation than degrees like the M.B.A. – if you don’t enjoy writing and research (not merely one or the other), a Ph.D. probably is not right for you.

5) A Ph.D. is a valuable asset in the business world, especially in Europe. If one looks at the C-suite executives and boards of companies across Western Europe, most conspicuously in Germany, a staggering proportion of senior executives hold Ph.D.’s. Simply being “Doctor So-and-So” is a terrible reason to earn a Ph.D., but weighing the Ph.D. as both an academic achievement and a business credential is a worthwhile piece of life-planning arithmetic. The trend in Asia is increasingly to follow the European model in this regard, particularly in China.

The decision to pursue further education is a weighty one and should be viewed in the context of personal growth, not as a calculation of the net present value of a marginal improvement in future earnings. The latter calculation is suspect in both its accuracy and its relevance, as much of the utility one derives from graduate study comes in a relatively pure form of happiness – it is having complete confidence in a split-second calculation, having a few friends in Geneva to meet you for dinner when you land, or knowing someone running a fund in Nairobi when you need to learn the landscape quickly. This “social utility” of education, which is misunderstood as “networking” in much of the MBA ranking chatter, is one of the most rewarding aspects of studying at top institutions. The value of time spent in a space with the highest-caliber people cannot be underestimated, and both top firms in the private sector and top institutions of graduate study offer this experience. Whether you stay in school after the MBA to do it, working with the best people is an experience everyone should have – or aspire to have – and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this experience on both sides of the Atlantic early in my career.

Karl T. Muth is an M.Phil./Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science and maintains a consulting practice focusing on economic analysis and applied finance in Europe and Africa. He holds law and business degrees, the latter with a concentration in economics from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where he serves on the Admissions Committee. All opinions and comments in this piece represent Mr. Muth’s views and do not reflect the views of any institution with which he is affiliated.


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